Backlash on the Recast
Recasting vs. Whitewashing in Media
In an industry where whitewashing is common, casting minority actors in movies based on comics often results in ferocious backlash. What causes this reaction and what does it reveal about fans?
Iron Man, Spider-Man, Ms. Marvel, Aquaman. What do these characters have in common? Recently they have all been recast in some sense, either in the comics or in the films. Jason Momoa has recently been seen as Aquaman in the new DCCU (DC Cinematic Universe), appearing in Justice League and Aquaman. Traditionally, Aquaman is depicted as a pale-skinned, blond-haired man. This is a far cry from Momoa, who has wonderfully tan skin and dark hair. While there hasn’t been much outcry over this [ 1 ], there have been people who have disliked this casting choice because “Aquaman is white.” It is important to note that white men seem to have more of a problem with Momoa’s casting than white women have. Part of this is because Jason Momoa is very attractive. This is despite the fact that Momoa, a Hawaiian, is a talented actor and accomplished action star, making him a much better choice than any other actor.
These facts don’t seem to matter much to some people. They hide their racism behind the guise of “comic accuracy,” using this to barely conceal their true intentions—or more accurately, like a dog whistle to reference their racism in public without anyone noticing. It’s the same excuse they used when there were rumors of Donald Glover playing Spider-Man [ 2 ]. The very idea of a black man playing Peter Parker was so vile to some people that they felt the need to send out death threats. Donald Glover wasn’t even approached to play Peter Parker; a fan of the Miles Morales version of Spider-Man had tossed him the idea of bringing that particular incarnation of Spider-Man to the screen.
You Can Choose Any Color of Successor–As Long as They’re White
The passing down of the mantle of a superhero is nothing new. Sometimes the original character dies, passing on the identity and image of the hero in question, such as Green Lantern. The ring is what contains the power and it chooses a worthy person, human or alien, to carry on the mantle of the Green Lantern. Other times, a hero retires due to age or health. This was the case with Batman. He retired and Dick Grayson took the Batman persona for a short time before morphing into Nightwing. When talking about recasting a character, the most important things to remember are the personality and integrity of the character. Suddenly having Bruce Wayne being upbeat and optimistic is a far more grievous crime than, say, casting an Asian man as the character.
An extreme example of fan backlash is illustrated quite clearly by Marvel’s decision to have not just a woman, but a black woman, fill Tony Stark’s shoes. RiRi Williams, a certified genius and a skilled inventor, took up the mantle of Iron Man as Ironheart, yet there are people who complained because she is a black woman.
While I’m sure there would have been contention if RiRi was white, the choice to make her black amplified the hatred, with many people calling it “improbable” that a black woman was a genius inventor—as if doubling down with both sexism and racism is a better way to prove their point [ 3 ]. These individuals likely have no idea that, historically, women (and black women in particular) have always been at the forefront of STEM fields. There was enough backlash when Shuri, also an original Marvel character, made her debut in the MCU.
The introduction of Williams does have some problematic elements, of course. The fact that her debut was written by a white male is one—as is the revelation that there are few PoC creatives working for Marvel in the first place. However, these issues notwithstanding, there is plenty of backlash against RiRi’s inclusion that don’t focus on these issues. How is it that Tony Stark’s scientific and engineering abilities are never questioned, but RiRi Williams’ are? What is so different between RiRi and Tony? Only their gender and skin color are different (without delving into their respective upbringing and class privilege— but that presents storytelling opportunities, not obstacles).
As it’s been stated time and time again, white people aren’t better, smarter, or more capable than anyone else. It is bias and closed mindedness that causes people to think that white people are superior to others simply by the color of their skin. It is important to remember this as we discus recasting “white” characters. There have been so many reboots, alternate timelines, and “what ifs” that anything released by the parent company should be considered canon. Otherwise, the argument of what is and isn’t canon can go on for days with no real resolution. Or, if we want to connect this with current MCU properties, we are all Variants.
The same can be said when casting a movie. Whenever a non-white character is played by a white actor (Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen in the Hunger Games [ 4 ] series, Justin Chatwin as Goku [ 5 ] from the live-action Dragon Ball adaptation) people will claim “The filmmakers just wanted the best actor for the role, it isn’t about race.” Yet, they seem to forget this argument when a person of color is cast in a “white role,” such as when Michael B. Jordan was cast as Johnny Storm in the 2015 Fantastic Four.
The controversy and vitriol that was thrown around at the announcement of that casting choice was devastating. People who criticized the casting were ignorant of their own racism and refused to acknowledge that Jordan is a fine actor. This same phenomenon occurred after Marvel revealed that the character of Heimdall in Thor would be played by Idris Elba [ 6 ]; this backlash, in many ways, was even worse, considering that the portrayal of Asgardian gods has been used as justification for white nationalist movements to discriminate against non-Aryan individuals under the guise of Norse heathen religious revival movements such as Odinism and Asatru. This completely ignores the actual history of Norse Vikings; as they traveled and traded extensively, the Norse inter-married and welcomed people of all nationalities into the groups and families.
Adding Insult to Injury
Notwithstanding, the “best actor” argument is extremely insulting to minority actors. It literally argues that a black person is not skilled enough to play a black character or if somehow Asian people are not sufficiently talented in their craft and don’t have the ability to play an Asian character. This leads to treating whiteness as the default and the standard of quality. When whiteness is held in higher regard than diversity, we lose the chance to experience new and unique viewpoints.
Another problem we have seen lately with media is giving all the leading roles to white actors and non-white actors are cast as extras or villains. This adds to negative stereotypes and disrespect to non-white actors and viewers. No one wants to see people who look like them being constantly evil or cast as slaves. That’s a blow to the collective psyche of the people you are portraying as evil or worthless. Imagine going to a film and seeing all the people who look like you being tortured or playing murderers. It doesn’t make for a pleasant viewing experience.
Whitewashing is just as big a problem in films as not allowing minority actors to play characters regardless of race. There is an over-abundance of white actor-driven movies. When people of color do lead films, they are over scrutinized and almost always set up to fail. This leads to minority actors being undervalued for their talent and discourages new actors from stepping up and taking roles. When we encourage PoC to take on more challenging roles we encourage young people to see themselves in a more positive light.
A movie starring Anthony Mackie as Captain America in the wake of the massively successful The Falcon and the Winter Soldier series, will create a huge surge of confidence for young black men. They will see themselves as heroes. They will feel inspired by the courage and integrity of Sam Wilson, much in the same way that the African-American community has responded with such joy and pride to the success of Marvel’s Black Panther film. Black Panther is a shining example of how a film populated with rich characters portrayed by people of color and provided with a well-written script can be both a financial and critical success—all without whitewashing [ 7 ].
New Dimensions, Better Storytelling
By a similar token, when we allow and encourage the casting of PoC in “traditionally white” roles, we are opening up a new opportunity and a new dimension to the character. A black Spider-Man, for example, is going to have a vastly different upbringing that a white Spider-Man. His choices and reactions are going to be informed by growing up in the face of racism and a different form of adversity; not to diminish any of the struggles that Peter Parker has faced in his long, storied career, you would be hard pressed to identify instances where the fact that he’s white has made his life harder.
Meanwhile, showcasing the challenges inherent in growing up as a PoC in a country that has systematic racism provides avenues for more fulfilling storytelling opportunities—especially when those storylines can help to showcase the role that race and gender discrimination play in the lives of PoC and women respectively [ 8 ].
Casting people of color shouldn’t be seen as “taking a risk.” It should be viewed as finding the best actor for the job, an argument used to justify casting white actors as nonwhite characters. This is especially true considering every word written, every minute of film recorded, is laden with inherent risk. Comics and geek movies aren’t a guaranteed success, as much as we like to think they are.
It’s most certainly been proven that whitewashing a character, such as the Major from Ghost in the Shell, had a negative impact on the film [ 9 ]. While there’s no direct evidence of this—and the film itself had problems above and beyond its whitewashing—it very well could be that the film may have performed better if a Japanese actress had been cast in the role instead.
It can be argued that we do need to create new superheroes that are non-white and that new, fresh characters will be more readily accepted than a recast. However, comic publishers are notorious for underplaying new characters or sidelining them in favor of the old favorites. Kamala Khan as a new, original superhero, for example, wouldn’t be as successful as she has been in taking up the mantle of Ms. Marvel. Kamala is vastly different from the Ms. Marvels that came before her. She brings a new and interesting identity to the role as a Pakistani-American [ 10 ].
Her thoughts and actions are influenced by her upbringing and it is important for other South Asians to see Kamala be strong and courageous. Just by being a superhero, she is breaking a very dangerous stereotype about South Asian girls. Even her costume is informed by her life as a Muslim and a teenage girl. All too often we see teenagers and young women in sexualized costumes. Kamala’s superhero costume is much more modest and practical.
These choices of creating and recasting minority characters are empowering for everyone, regardless of race. Our lives are often shaped by the media we are exposed to as children and teenagers. Seeing non-white characters on screen taken seriously is an incredible confidence boost for non-white kids. Also, non-white characters can help teach white people about acceptance and tolerance. The more we are exposed to different points of view, the more empathetic we can become.
This is why it is so frustrating to see people complain so much about a recast. It’s not about canon or the best actor, it’s about representation and ethics. Batman is still Batman no matter what color skin he has. Spider-Man is still Spider-Man whether he is Peter Parker or Miles Morales in his off time.
The world is a weird and diverse place and geekdom is the perfect vehicle for showcasing and celebrating that. We have to work together to embrace and spotlight our differences while still staying true to the morals and values of the superheroes that we have grown to love. I like to believe that most people are good and capable for excellence, just like the superheroes we love.
- “Even Jason Momoa’s rendition of Aquaman has not been without criticism.” Cubankite. Shutterstock. “London, United Kingdom-November 26, 2018: Jason Momoa attends the “Aquaman” World Premiere at Cineworld Leicester Square in London, UK.” www.shutterstock.com/image-photo/london-united-kingdomnovember-26-2018-jason-1685274154
- “Art mirroring life mirroring art. Navdeep Dhillon Singh’s cover has quickly become a symbol of protest, as have many other instances of Kamala Khan.” Source: https://twitter.com/navdeep_dhillon/status/825813340354179072
Courtney is a writer, editor and videographer for Steam-Funk Studios. Passionate for fashion design with nerdy flair, her family has always nurtured her love for speculative fiction and creativity. Joining the firm as a writer, Courtney’s distinguished herself as editorial staff and as a production assistant for The Living Multiverse’s photography shoots. She has also participated in and acted as assistant troupe manager for our performers and panelists, at shows like C.O.G.S. Expo and PhilCon.
- Crump, Andy. “‘Aquaman’ Star Jason Momoa Talks Superhero Diversity.” ScreenRant, Valnet Inc., 29 Jan. 2015, screenrant.com/aquaman-movie-jason-momoa-justice-league-diversity/.
- Berlatsky, Noah. “The Incoherent Backlashes to Black Actors Playing ‘White’ Superheroes.” The Atlantic, The Atlantic, 20 Feb. 2014, theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2014/02/the-incoherent-backlashes-to-black-actors-playing-white-superheroes/283979/.
- Riesman, Abraham. “Geeks Are Angry about Iron Man Becoming a Black Girl — but Not for the Reason You’d Think.” Vulture, New York Magazine, 7 July 2016, vulture.com/2016/07/iron-man-riri-williams-controversy.html.
- Wilson, Natalie. “A Whitewashed Hunger Games – Ms. Magazine.” Msmagazine.com, Liberty Media, 3 Apr. 2012, msmagazine.com/2012/04/03/a-whitewashed-hunger-games/.
- Lindwasser, Anna. “‘Dragonball Evolution’ Might Be the Worst Anime Adaptation Ever Made.” Ranker, Ranker, 31 Mar. 2018, ranker.com/list/dragon-ball-evolution-terrible/anna-lindwasser.
- Khouri, Andy. “Racists Totally Freak out over Idris Elba Playing Norse God in ‘Thor.’” ComicsAlliance, Townsquare Media, Inc., 16 Dec. 2010, comicsalliance.com/racists-thor-idris-ebla-racism/.
- “Black Panther Film: ‘Game-Changing’ Movie Takes $1bn.” BBC News, 11 Mar. 2018, bbc.com/news/entertainment-arts-43364702.
- Collins, Cory. “What Is White Privilege, Really?” Learning for Justice, Learning for Justice, 15 Aug. 2018, learningforjustice.org/magazine/fall-2018/what-is-white-privilege-really.
- Laughrey, Clarisse. “Ghost in the Shell Is Tanking, for One Very Good Reason.” The Independent, The Independent, 6 Apr. 2017, independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/films/news/ghost-shell-box-office-paramount-whitewashing-japanese-scarlett-johansson-a7669591.html.
- Romano, Aja. “This Muslim-American Superhero Has Become a Real-World Protest Icon.” Vox, Vox Media, LLC, 2 Feb. 2017, vox.com/culture/2017/2/2/14457384/kamala-khan-captain-america-protest-icon.